In May, hedge fund investor Dan Loeb proposed a break-up of Sony, the Japanese electronics and entertainment giant that has struggled over the past decade. Actually, he's not proposing a complete break-up, but rather an initial public offering whereby Sony would sell a 20% stake in its music and movies business to outside investors. Loeb argues that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Sony has an entertainment division that produces movies (Skyfall, Spiderman) and represents recording artists (Adele, Springsteen). The entertainment division has been more profitable than the electronics division in recent years. Investors recognize that Sony has been subsidizing losses in areas such as its television business with profits from its entertainment division. Sony also still owns a majority stake in a firm called Sony Financial Holdings, which operates in the banking and insurance business. Here's an excerpt from a Bloomberg article about Loeb's push for a partial break-up at Sony:
The value of Sony’s entertainment division -- which makes the “Spider-Man” movies through its Culver City, California-based Sony Pictures and also represents music artists including Grammy winner Adele -- isn’t being realized in the company’s current structure, said Michael Souers, an equity analyst at Standard & Poor’s. “It’s totally being weighed down by the struggling consumer electronics unit and the fact that it’s had to subsidize that unit,” Souers said in a phone interview from New York. A partial spinoff “would make sense for them. And from a managerial perspective, they could focus a little bit more on turning around the electronics business.” A sum-of-the-parts analysis by Christian Dinwoodie, a Tokyo-based analyst at CLSA, values Sony at 2,400 yen a share, 28 percent higher than its price May 14, before Loeb’s proposal lifted the stock. Spinning off part of the entertainment business would give Sony an infusion of capital and allow it to transfer some debt to the new entity, Dinwoodie wrote in a May 14 report.
In late June, Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai announced the board of directors would be conducting a thorough review of the Loeb proposal. The board has yet to make a decision on the Loeb proposal, to my knowledge. Will Loeb succeed in his efforts? It will be a tough slog, given that activist investors from foreign countries have not fared well historically in Japan. Having said that, Sony did sell a stake in its financial services business several years ago; there is precedent for a refocusing of the company's strategy.
Sony should consider Loeb's proposal seriously. Years ago, many firms pursued strategies that combined media content with hardware/electronics businesses. Most of those companies failed to realize the purported synergies. Focused firms outperformed many of the integrated players (think Apple outmaneuvering Sony, not by owning media content, but by negotiating to secure access to content for iTunes). One of the problems with integration in the entertainment business is the conflicts of interest that arise. If you tailor content to your devices or vice versa, you run the risk of losing certain customers and partners. CEO Kazuo Hirai will have to explain clearly how he will make synergies materialize between the two arms of Sony, if he wishes to allay the concerns of investors. If he holds onto both businesses, he has to explain why the entertainment business isn't going to continue subsidizing unprofitable elements of the electronics business.